Tuesday, May 08, 2007

The Republican calculus on Iraq

By Michael J.W. Stickings

"Congressional leaders from both political parties are giving President Bush a matter of months to prove that the Iraq war effort has turned a corner, with September looking increasingly like a decisive deadline," WaPo is reporting. It is then that the deus ex machina known as Gen. David H. Petraeus will "have a handle on whether the current troop increase [i.e., the "surge"] is having any impact on political reconciliation between Iraq's warring factions," or so he says.

So is September the key month? Maybe. If Petraeus says at that point that the surge isn't working, then the pressure on Bush to withdraw the bulk of U.S. forces will intensify. But I doubt that Petraeus would be so blunt. More likely, he'll hedge, saying that the surge is sort of working. (And there is evidence that it is sort of working -- the problem is that it's only sort of working in a limited and illusory way, that is, that the surge is a band-aid, not reconstructive surgery.)

The key won't be Petraeus's assessment of the situation, however, but how Republicans respond to that assessment, to what they perceive to be the facts on the ground in Iraq, and to shifts in public opinion. Whether or not the surge is working, or sort of working, or whatever, Republicans -- many of them, anyway -- have had more than enough of the Iraq War and, with a solid 2006 defeat behind them, are looking ahead anxiously to 2008. Bush, who isn't facing re-election, can afford to push for the war to continue as is. So can McCain, who's running as a hardliner against his fellow Republicans. But Republicans in Congress -- the ones who aren't running for president, that is -- cannot afford to neglect political reality. And that reality is that the country has turned against the war and is not about to support an extension of the war as is unless there is a clear improvement in Iraq, and perhaps not even then.

And Republicans know that. Hence their calculation.

It made sense -- to them, one presumes -- to support Bush in opposition to the Democrats' troop withdrawal bill, insofar as it makes sense not to have it seem as if the Democrats have "won" the issue. But it also makes sense not to go into 2008 supporting Bush's highly unpopular war. Which means that the Republicans who have had enough of the Iraq War need to figure out how long to continue supporting it before ultimately turning against it -- and how to do this seamlessly and without seeming to have "lost". If Petraeus gives them an opening, perhaps by implying, if not saying so outright, that the results of the surge thus far are inconclusive, that is, by claiming anything other than outright success, these Republicans could take it as the best opportunity to get out well in advance of the 2008 elections.

What Bush will do is another matter, of course. He may not give in to calls for withdrawal even if his own party abandons him in large numbers in Congress. Or he, too, may take the opportunity presented to him.

What is clear, though, is that pressure to withdraw the bulk of U.S. forces will likely mount over the coming months unless there is unambiguous evidence of success in Iraq, which is unlikely. And that means that more and more Republicans could soon be moving over to the Democrats in search of a suitable compromise that includes withdrawal. The Democrats just need to wait for enough of them to do so before they once more press Bush on ending his disastrous war.

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